Friday, December 13, 2013

Why I Am a Pacifist: The Biblical Argument

This is the second part of a seven-part series. To start from the beginning, click here.

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about how I could best present the Biblical case for pacifism. I considered writing an in-depth study of the "classic" pacifist passages, [E1] or arguing why the Bible verses that are cited in defense of Just War and self-defense are misinterpreted, [E2] or making a list of all of the verses that show how nonviolence is God’s way. [E3] However, rather than taking any of these approaches, I decided that the best way to make a case for pacifism is to tell the story of the Bible. I hope that the way I tell this story will illuminate why nonviolence is a key part of the Christian message. [E4]

Let’s start with Genesis. According to the first book of the Bible, evil began to take over the world when sin entered the human community. It’s important to note that the first sins were social in nature. When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, they broke the bond of trust between themselves and God, which resulted in them feeling ashamed and covering up to protect their vulnerability. [E5] Once this trust had been broken, humans started relating to one another and to God in a fundamentally different way. There arose deception, jealousy, competition, and within the second generation of humans, the simple act of disobediently eating fruit had resulted in an act of murder. [E6]

Murder – or the threat of it – marks the ultimate inability to trust others, for murderers seek to resolve conflict by eliminating their opponents rather than reconciling with them. In addition to the harm that this does to murder victims and their families, this creates an environment in which people feel that they are not safe, and they in turn must hold the power of violence to ensure their own survival. But this only perpetuates the tension and violence, [E7] and thus, in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we see the world spiral out of control until it gets to a point where it “was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.” [E8] Anyone born into this community would be immediately sucked into the vortex of violence, and so the only solution for eradicating violence seemed to be the destruction of the human race altogether. [E9]

Fortunately, God had another plan. God decided instead to create a community that was immune from these cycles because it lived by a different standard. [E10] Rather than trusting in their own might or power, they would put their faith in God, and this would eliminate the need for deception, competition, and violence. We find the beginnings of this vision in God’s call to Abraham. In their opening conversation, God tells him, “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you” in order that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” [E11] Now this idea of making Abraham into a nation may not mean much to those of us who have embraced an individualistic version of Christianity, but it arises from the conviction that salvation had to include more than just individual conversions but an entire societal transformation.

And so Israel was called to be the space on earth where God was rightly worshiped and the people lived in harmony with one another. They were not supposed to dominate other nations, but their influence would spread based on their reputation of being a faithful community. [E12] Micah, for example, looked forward to a day when “Many nations will come and say, ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths,’” with the result that “they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up the sword against nation, and never again shall they train for war.” [E13] Being inspired by the way that Israel lived, these nations would choose trust in God instead of trust in force.

Of course, for Israel to become this kind of place, the people had to have tremendous faith in God themselves, which they were never able to do perfectly. They continually turned to other things for their protection and prosperity – whether that was the gods of other nations or their own political and military strength. [E14] And so God backed away from them, allowing them to suffer at the hands of enemy-nations, until they learned to trust God as their Savior. [E15] Amidst this back-and-forth, there was a growing hope for a Messianic leader who would usher in a new era, one in which Israel would become an independent nation that lived up to the character that God had always intended for it. In expectation of this Messiah, Zechariah says, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he... He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim [i.e. Israel] and the war-horse from Jerusalem [i.e. Judah]… and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” [E16]

Over the centuries that followed, many people claimed to be that Messiah and tried to bring Israel into this golden era. However, one stands out as unusual: Jesus of Nazareth. Like the others, he claimed to be a political leader, who gathered followers that swore allegiance to him, raised funds with the promise to bring change, and promised that the “kingdom of God” was at hand [E17]. But there was something different about this political leader: he had a fundamentally different conception of power than all of the others. He told his followers “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” and that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” [E18] You see, Jesus was planning to start a revolution but without using violence as a tool to bring it about. Instead, he offered relentless critiques of evil from the posture of a servant, he made bold promises that he trusted God to carry out, and he began making changes without seeking the establishment’s approval.

Of course, the powers that Jesus was opposing didn’t play by these same rules.  They captured him, tried him, and tortured him, and when he still wouldn’t waiver in his convictions, they used their ultimate weapon against him: death. But Jesus held fast even then and proved that not even death could stop him. He rose from the dead, demonstrating that all of their weapons against him were impotent, and having defeated Death itself, he sent his disciples into the nations to invite them to participate in a kingdom that could not be shaken, even by the threat of death itself. [E19]

This kingdom has not been fully established. Jesus promised to return, armed solely with the Word of God, to banish the forces of evil forever and create a space of everlasting peace. [E20] But in the meantime, he has established his own community – the Church – to carry out Israel’s mission as the holy nation that God had designed for the salvation of the world. [E21] The Church is called to be a community that is free from deception, that eliminates equality, and where anyone can be safe because there is no hint of violence. [E22] To do this, the community is called to imitate Christ in his absolute refusal to use violence as a weapon for any and every cause.

Perhaps my boldest claim of all is that “the Church” has done this. Obviously, there are many Christians in the world who not only approve of violence but who have led the world into war. But at the same time, there has always been a remnant that has remained nonviolent [E23] – from the persecuted church of the first three centuries to the monastic communities that stood fast throughout the Middle Ages to the Anabaptists and Quakers that split off from the established churches in the Modern Era to the Catholic Worker movement and Red Letter Christians who are promoting “Just Peace” in the world today. The people of God are still called to live by God’s vision for Israel, to create a space on earth that models love, justice, and peace, and that invites others into it. The only way that I know how to be faithful to this vision is as a pacifist.

End Notes

[E1] I'm looking at you, Matthew 5:38-48. Fortunately, Richard Hays has already done this in his chapter, “Violence in Defense of Justice,” in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 319-329. 

[E2] Hays also addresses several of the texts that are cited against pacifism in this chapter, on pages 332-336.

[E3] Many such lists already exist. Here is one example, which does a pretty good job of listing the New Testament texts (although it still misses a few important ones, such as Luke 19:41-42 and Ephesians 2:14-18), but fails to look at any of the Old Testament passages that point toward pacifism. Despite these weaknesses, I would encourage you to look at it, as it gives a good sense of how big of a theme this is in the New Testament by the sheer number of verses it cites.

[E4] Of course, I recognize the dangers of this approach. When you paint the Bible in broad strokes and select verses that fit your agenda, you risk shaping the Biblical story into your own ideology rather than allowing it to shape you. Just because someone can string verses together in an impressive array doesn’t mean that their arrangement is true, and this applies to me just as much as anyone else.

However, at the end of the day, “the Bible” – to the extent that it can be called by that name – is a story whose power is not primarily in “inerrant” facts or “infallible” but in the way that it orients us to reality. If we take it to be an authority, then we must take the risk of telling its story as a whole, even if our own preferences and presuppositions get mixed in with that telling. The best way to avoid that is to share it with other Christians, as I am doing now, so that they can see our blind spots and together we can turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance. To refuse to tell the story out of the academic fear of “doing violence” to the text is to subject oneself to another narrative – only one that is not named and therefore which cannot be challenged.

[E5] Genesis 2:25 to 3:7. I do not personally believe that Adam and Eve were historical people, but I still believe that the Genesis story is divinely inspired because it teaches us correct theological truths about God, evil, human nature, sin, etc. However, just in case you’re wondering, I do believe that Jesus was a historical person (God in the flesh) and that his death and resurrection were historical events. I say this for the sake of transparency. This is not the place to discuss historicity and its relation to Biblical reliability or authority.

[E6] Here, I am referring to the story of Cain and Abel, which can be found in Genesis 4:1-16.

[E7] Several passages of Scripture talk about the cyclical nature of violence: cf. Genesis 9:6, Proverbs 19:19, Matthew 26:52.

[E8] Genesis 6:11

[E9] See Genesis 6:13.

[E10] “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” Leviticus 20:26.

[E11] Genesis 12:2-3

[E12] See Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3, and Jeremiah 13:10-11.

[E13] Micah 4:3; echoed in Isaiah 2:4 and to a lesser extent, Zechariah 8:20-23

[E14] For examples, see Jeremiah 2:11 and 1 Samuel 8:4-9.

[E15] For example, see Psalm 106.

[E16] Zechariah 9:9-10

[E17] It’s impossible to document everything political that Jesus says and does in the gospels, but here’s a small sampling: Matthew 21:6-11, Mark 1:15, Luke 4:16-21, John 4:25-26.

[E18] Luke 9:23, Mark 10:43.

[E19] This sentence alludes to Colossians 2:14b-15, 1 Corinthians 15:54-56, Hebrews 12:28-29, and Romans 8:38-39.

[E20] See Mark 13:24-27, Acts 1:11, Revelation 19:11-16.

The Revelation passage is one that many have used as an argument against pacifism, since it uses strong war imagery. Somehow, despite the clearly metaphorical nature of Revelation, many people fail to interpret this passage metaphorically. I, for one, do not believe that the “sharp sword that comes out of his mouth” is a literal weapon that he holds in his teeth, but is instead the Word of God, which is “sharper than any two-edged sword, and [pierces] as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and [is] able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

[E21] Unfortunately, most American Christians have completely lost the corporate aspect of salvation. It is not enough for God to save each of us individually; God wants to save all of us together, as a community. See especially John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, and Ephesians 2:11-22.

To see how the Church carries on the task to be the holy community, first consult Exodus 19:5-6, then see 1 Peter 2:9-10 and Revelation 1:5b-6.

[E22] There are high moral standards given to Christians throughout the New Testament due to the importance of preserving a holy community. For one powerful example, read Ephesians 4:25-5:5. For the issue of violence specifically, see 1 Peter 3:8-15.

[E23] By using the term “the remnant” here, I do not intend to imply that pacifists are the only “true” Christians or that they alone will be saved. I know many advocates of Just War theory and believers who have fought in wars, whom I assume will inherit the kingdom of God. To get a better handle on my understanding of salvation, see my post, “Heaven and Hell Reconsidered.” However, I am claiming that it is only by the grace of God that the pacifist witness has survived all of the centuries of kings and emperors who sought to snuff it out, often times with the help of the established churches.

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